Lesson 6 of 7 - learn to parent effectively

Options for Nurturing
 "Problem" Kids

They are not the problem!

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member, NSRC Experts Council

The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/parent/problem.htm

Updated 08-08-2015

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      All normal minor kids and teens cause family and social problems. If someone judges the problems as "too serious" or "too frequent," the child may be labeled as "difficult" and/or a "problem child." This article is written to adults concerned about such a child. It summarizes (a) general surface problems, (b) typical underlying primary problems, and (c) practical options for adults to help themselves and troubled kids.

      This brief YouTube video focuses on parenting "difficult" kids effectively. The video refers to eight lessons in this self-help Web site. I've reduced that to seven.

      The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this Website  and the premises underlying it  

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 5

  • traits of a high-nurturance (functional) family

  • typical kids' developmental needs, and

  • how to communicate effectively with kids and teens

 What's the Surface Problem?

      Think of a "problem child" who has affected your life. Such kids may lie, cheat, steal, bully, defy, withhold, act "irresponsibly," fail and/or disrupt school, are "social misfits," "hyperactive," disrespectful, "selfish," sneaky, lazy, rebellious, defiant, aggressive, hostile, promiscuous, arrogant, and so on. You may empathize with such kids' caregivers as "trying their best with a bad child." Most over-busy parents and school staff tend to focus on restraining and "fixing" "troubled" boys and girls.

      The typical surface problems are that a "problem child'" ...

  • aggravates adults and other kids too often. and/or s/he...

  • is choosing self-harmful behaviors, activities, and relationships; and...

  • isn't "responding well enough" to attempts to correct or change his/her troublesome attitudes and behaviors.

These are stressful - and are not the real issues.

 What's the Primary Problem?

      I propose that there are\ up to seven underlying concurrent reasons causing these three surface problems:

      1) The child's birth parents are (a) psychologically wounded and (b)  unaware, so (c) they made unwise commitment and/or conception choices and (d) are unable to parent effectively. This means...

      2) The child has been probably been raised in a low-nurturance ("dysfunctional") environment, so his/her developmental needs haven't been filled well enough. Typical minor kids can't identify and assert their needs for...

  • respectful attention and guidance;

  • feeling genuinely loved, valued, noticed, and safe in their home and family,

  • trust that their adults will reliably comfort, guide, and protect them;

  • patient, empathic adult listening;

  • appropriate privacy and freedoms,

      And young kids and teens need...

  • dignity and genuine (vs. dutiful) acceptance,

  • nourishing companionship and dependable advocacy,

  • help learning how to assert their needs and boundaries respectfully,  and to problem-solve effectively,

  • steady encouragement, despite mistakes, conflicts, and confusion;

     and typical kids need...

  • respectful, consistent discipline - (rules and consequences).

      Were these needs filled well enough, often enough when you were growing up?

    A child's troublesome behavior is an instinctive attempt to survive, fill current needs, and manage inner pain, It is usually reflexive and instinctive, rather than intentional.

      3)  A troubled child is half the problem. To survive a low-nurturance environment, s/he is probably evolving protective, short-sighted, false selves which "act out." The child didn't choose this, doesn't know it, and can't control it without patient, informed adult help. Unless corrected by family and individual therapy, this promotes a shame-based or fear-based personality and a troubled adulthood.

      More primary problems with "problem" kids...

      4Caregivers and authorities are focusing on surface problems, and don't know this or what to do about it. They lack the knowledge, awareness, and courage to focus on family-adult wound-reduction (Lesson 1 here), education, and proactively breaking the [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

      5) Adults may argue over who is "at fault" and who is responsible for "fixing" the "problem child." Such amplifies personal, family, and social conflict.

      Arguing is usually caused by the adults' wounds, and their unawareness of the primary problems. Psychological wounds cause inflammatory finger-pointing (blaming), defensiveness, resentment, and denial (reality distortion Chronic arguing and fighting is always a sign of an inability to assert, listen, and do win-win problem-solving,

      Another primary problem causing kids' "problem behavior" is...

      6) The way adults try to "fix" the child.  Exasperated family adults and school staff try to change the child by









guilt tripping





loss of privileges





      These may temporarily reduce or stop the child's problematic  behaviors. However, none of these "solutions" resolve the underlying primary problems, which promotes "relapsing.".

      Did the adults who raised you use any of these solutions with you? Do you remember how that felt? These choices tend to shame, hurt, frustrate, anger, and alienate the child, which invites more "acting out." The adults' "solution" unintentionally adds to the problem

      When such solutions fail, some parents resort to sending the child to "military school" and/or individual therapy, This probably will not permanently resolve the problems because...

  • the appropriate clinical help needed is family therapy involving at least the child and all active caregivers; and...

  • few "child therapists" know these underlying primary problems or what to do about them. They don't know what they don't know, which promotes ineffective therapy.

__  7)  The final overarching reason  for problem kids' "acting out" is social ignorance + denial + indifference to these six interactive problems and their toxic effects.

      Summing up...

     A minor or grown child's attitude, behavioral, social, and school problems are really caused by psychjological wounds in the child and their caregivers, + adult ignorance and unawareness + social unawareness and denial.

      Notice your reaction to this opinion. Does it seem realistic? Do you agree with it? Would your other family adults and supporters agree? If not, what is your explanation for "problem children"? Bad genes? Hormones? The wrong friends? TV, music, and video games? Drugs?

      So - what can caring adults do to permanently reduce or end stress with a "problem child"?


      Paradox: if you're psychologically wounded, protective false selves will; discourage you from following these options. If so, you may have to ''hit bottom'' before you can overcome this barrier. See #3 below.

      Based on the premises above, you probably can't permanently improve your "problem child's" attitudes and behavior by yourself. Your family adults can...

Stabilize any child-related family crisis, and adopt a long-range outlook (e.g. 10-20 years). 

Define your problem as family dysfunction, not a bad / defective / sick / troubled / problem child; and you can...

Encourage all your family adults and any lay and professional supporters to patiently work together on these tasks:

__ 1) KEY: read and discuss this overview of the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle. Then commit to break the cycle over time, and protect all your living and unborn kids from its effects.

__ 2) Learn - take these quizzes to motivate you to study and discuss Lessons 1 thru 6 or 7 in this nonprofit Web site. The objective is to improve the nurturance level of your family over time for all your sakes. Learn to think of your multi-generational family as a dynamic system;

__ 3) Adults - including grandparents - identify, admit, and commit to reducing your respective psychological wounds - i.e., patiently help each other apply Lesson 1,

__ 4) Learn and apply effective communication skills (Lesson 2),  and how to communicate effectively with kids and each other. For effective-communication options with "difficult people," see these examples. Then use your skills to...

__ 5) Patiently improve the effectiveness of your child discipline.

    And all your family adults...

__ 6) Learn, discuss, and practice analyzing and resolving typical (family) relationship problems. As you work to improve your family's nurturance level, Consider hiring an experienced family-systems therapist to help you. Other lay and professional counselors and clinicians are apt to focus only on the child and the surface problems.

__ 7)  If your "problem child" is a teen, see and discuss this.

__ 8)  If the child is in a separated or divorcing family, add these special needs to her/his existing developmental needs.

__ 9)  All you family adults discuss and apply these ideas on how to evaluate your child's current needs.

__ 10) If your child may be addicted to something, see and discuss these options.

__ 11)  If your child is significantly to extremely wounded, use these relationship guidelines

__ 12) If your child lives in a multi-home stepfamily, see this and this, and study Lesson 7.

__ 13) Stay focused: your overarching target is protecting all your living and unborn kids from the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle. For incentive, scan these research items about Grown Wounded Children (GWCs).

      Together, these options aim to (a) heal family adults' wounds, (b) convert their ignorance with awareness, and (c) significantly improve their "problem child's" family environment over time. Restated:: these options aim to help caregivers fill a "problem child's" unmet needs effectively, over time.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect on what you just read. Are you motivated to follow each of these suggestions? If you answer "No," suspect that protective false selves dominate you. If so, YOU are a major part of your family's dysfunction and your child's "problems."


      This Lesson-6 article proposes that "problem kids'" attitudes and behaviors are not the problem. It proposes three common surface problems with "troubled kids," and seven underlying primary problems:

  • caregivers' unacknowledged psychological wounds + unawareness;

  • parents making unwise commitment and child-conception choices;

  • a dysfunctional (low-nurturance) home and family environment;

  • family adults'' inability to know and fill their kids' developmental and special needs effectively;

  • adults focusing on surface problems, rather than these primary ones..

  • the way adults try to change the child's attitudes and behaviors; and...

  • social unawareness, denial, and indifference to these six problems

      Implication: the child or teen is only half the problem at most.

      The article concludes with specific suggestions for family adults and supporters aimed at improving three of these primary problems. As that happens and kids' needs are met more effectively, their problem attitudes and behaviors can improve over time.

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